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My comments on De Mattei’s response

December 20, 2017

A few days ago Prof. Roberto De Mattei opined on the significance of the appearance of the so-called Buenos Aires directives in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. I replied to his observations here. Now, De Mattei has graciously responded to my remarks. There is, of course, much good in De Mattei’s latest comments, but there are also new and problematic assertions even beyond what I can respond to here. In the interest of efficiency I will respond to some of De Mattei’s points in terms of the incipits of his paragraphs.

“Professor Edward Peters …”

I think that Amoris laetitia has occasioned, and that some of the policies announced by certain bishops in the wake of Amoris have caused, real pastoral damage, but I seek neither to “contain” that damage nor to “minimize” it; rather, insofar as Amoris makes or occasions others making canonical assertions, I seek to identify those assertions and to frame them accurately for others. I take no position on whether there is ‘more behind’ the pope’s words than meets the eye. I focus on the legal significance (or lack thereof) of the pope’s materials as he published them, and leave mind-reading to others.

“With regard to canon law …”

My hands are full responding to many errors in this area published by people signing their names; I cannot also take on those who, for whatever reason, hide their identity and thereby venture nothing of themselves in making their claims. If I were, however, to respond to some points made along these lines, I would probably note that (a) I have long warned that any attack on the discipline set out Canon 915 in the cases of divorced-and-remarried Catholics is an attack on the divinely-rooted discipline of the canon as a whole; (b) I am well aware of the operation of Canon 20 and precisely so I insist, I think correctly, that no legislative assault on Canon 915 has been made by the pope against that law, for laws are made of words promulgated by legislators, not of motives surmised by observers, such that people who insist that Amoris and its papal progeny have made law are, in my view, simply wrong; and (c) Amoris falls utterly short of achieving an “ex integro” reorganization of the canon law on holy Communion if only because neither it nor the pope’s retroactive designation of his letter to the Argentines as “magisterial” counts as legislative at all.

By the way, a confused understanding of what constitutes law in the Church seems at work in De Mattei’s invocation of Familiaris consortio (which I join him in applauding, of course) as if it, too, were a “legislative” document. It is no such thing. It is an apostolic exhortation that in one place “reaffirms [Church] practice [read: law], which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.” The pope’s statement is completely correct, but that not qualify it as a “legislative” act, rather, it is by its own terms a reiteration of something already reflected in a legislative act (Canon 915).

“As for the theological aspect …”

I am not sure what De Mattei’s point is here. I have long argued that the ordinary Magisterium of the Church is reflected in exactly the kinds of documents that he points out. But I have also cautioned against the exaggerated impressions engendered by the word “magisterium”, connoting, as it does, in some people’s minds, major statements made with prelatial profundity approaching infallibility. But that is not the way the ordinary magisterium ordinarily works. Thus, while granting that some aspects of Amoris have, in a small-to-moderate way, contributed to Pope Francis’ ordinary magisterium, his assertions to date are, in my view, magisterially insignificant in the face of the millennia-old ordinary magisterium of the Church, reflected in centuries of canonical law and practice, against the appropriateness of holy Communion for (among others) divorced-and-remarried Catholics for several sacramental, moral, and ecclesiological reasons.

Some, I know, seek to avoid the serious problems occasioned by the abuse-prone language used by the pope in parts of Amoris et al. by claiming that the pope’s problematic assertions therein are not “magisterial”; I think at least some of them are, unfortunately, “magisterial”. Others seek to rally opposition to those assertions by invoking the label “magisterium” in a way that seems to exaggerate the significance of the weight of the pope’s assertions. I do not think they should be exaggerated. I describe those assertions for what I think they are: flawed, easily exploitable, expressions by a pope, which assertions nevertheless pale in the face of the Church’s unbroken enunciation of Church teaching and discipline in this area.

“Few of these acts are infallible…”

Perhaps De Mattei is writing for others here. I know all of this and agree with his description of the documents, as far as those descriptions go.

(Sidenote: I welcome De Mattei to the small but persistent school asserting the infallible character of Ordinatio sacerdotalis—against, I might add, such luminaries as then Cdl Ratzinger—but we base our conclusion for infallibility not on “the fact that the teaching of the Pope confirmed the perennial teaching of the Church” (for many papal statements do that) but rather, because OS itself meets, we think, all of the requirements for an infallible assertion set out in Canon 750, Lumen gentium 25, and Pastor Aeternus IV.)

“According to Peters …”

I can’t research the text and context of an uncountable number of Church documents that might be magisterial, disciplinary, or both. I concede that after 2,000 years we can find plenty of examples of pretty much everything in ecclesiastical documentation. The question is, how do we read documents like Amoris, Canon 915, and so on, today. Here’s how.

Canon 915 is, indisputably, a papal, legislative, disciplinary law made in support of several, divinely-grounded, doctrinal assertions (esp. on sacraments, morals, and ecclesiology). The meaning of what now appears as Canon 915 has been established by the Church over many, many centuries and—again, canonically unquestionably—prohibits ministers of holy Communion from distributing that most august Sacrament to, among others, divorced-and-remarried Catholics (pace the internal forum solution known commonly as the ‘brother-sister’ / remoto scandalo situation).

Against Canon 915 there is, according to some, arrayed a practically incomplete and theologically ambiguous assertion made by one pope in one footnote of a 50,000 word, non-legislative, document. Are ancient and unanimous Church teachings and practices so inconsequential as to be overturned so easily? Only a law or the canonical equivalent of a law can overturn a law. And Amoris, let alone a footnote in Amoris, is not a law or the canonical equivalent of a law.

There are several other observations I could offer on De Mattei’s column (e.g., Cdl. Coccopalmerio’s and Abp. Arrieta’s recent comments on this matter are themselves quite troubling, but they cannot be addressed here), so let me make a two of my own points.

1. Canon law is not the first defense of good order in the Church it is the last. As St. John Paul II put it, faith, grace, charisms, and especially charity are what allows the Church to pursue her mission in stability and efficiency. But where obfuscation (about the Lord’s clear teachings), or sin (helping others to avoid the Lord’s teachings), or amateurish novelties (instead of genuine pastoral skill), or self-centeredness (instead of love for others and what is ultimately best for them) infiltrate the Church, then, yes, canon law must be invoked as the final barrier to pastoral disarray approaching ecclesial catastrophe. Let me be clear: I am immensely glad that the law is here, but the fact that we are lately having to rely on law almost exclusively to defend crucial Church teachings is a sign of serious, deeper problems.

2. I do not know or care whether the ambiguities in Amoris regarding expectation for those seeking holy Communion were put there purposely by the pope or appeared there because of the incompetence of his drafters. I only know those ambiguities are there and that (a) they are not per se heretical, but (b) they have allowed others to claim papal cover for local policies that do spurn the force of Canon 915 and that do betray the sacramental, moral, and ecclesiological values behind the law. 

Meanwhile people who, while responding to real problems in Amoris, also pronounce the evisceration of Canon 915 at the pope’s hands (as opposed to what that law has suffered from others), are abandoning the one thing that, in this Valley of Tears, still clearly stands against the practical abandonment of several very important doctrinal values.


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